If you buy a digital music player, it will likely play a number of different file formats. Among these are probably MP3, WAV, and one of either WMA or AAC. If your player decodes AAC files, it is most certainly an iPod — the most popular and best digital music player out there. If it plays WMA files, it is probably an inferior player from the likes of Creative, Rio, Dell, or any of the other also-rans in the market.
Because nearly everything you read on this topic is slanted one way or the other, I’m going to try to provide an unbiased and factual frequently asked questions on this matter that is understandable by non-techies. Here goes nothing.
What’s the difference between WMA and AAC?
In terms of functionality, there is very little difference. Some audiophiles will tell you one format sounds better than the other, but for most people, the difference is indiscernible.
WMA stands for Windows Media Audio, and was developed by Microsoft. It is a proprietary format. In order for developers of software music players or portable music players to include support for WMA in their product, they must play a license fee to Microsoft. WMA is the format chosen by online music stores including Napster, Wal-mart, and Musicmatch. If you purchase a song from these stores, it will be in WMA format. Most digital music players sold today can play WMA files — the notable exception is Apple’s iPod, the most popular player on the market today (there are rumors that Apple may add WMA support to the iPod, but they are yet to be proven).
AAC stands for Advanced Audio Codec. It is an open standard developed by a committee that included Dobly Labs and AT&T Research. If you are a developer, it does not require a license fee to use in your software application or portable music player. AAC is based upon the same technology as MPEG-4. Apple has chosen a variant of AAC as the file format for their iTunes Music Store, which is far and away the most popular music store online at this time. Apple’s iTunes software and iPod player can play both standard AAC files as well as the variant of AAC provided by the iTunes Music Store (more on this variant later). Few, if any, other digital music players can handle AAC files.
What is a DRM?
DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, and is a generic term for a system built into a music file format that aides in preventing piracy. WMA includes an (optional) DRM system. Most WMA-supporting online music stores use this DRM. Apple developed a DRM system called Fairplay, which sets on top of the industry standard AAC format. Fairplay is used in files purchased form the iTunes Music Store.
Why the new file formats? What was wrong with good ol’ MP3?
Nothing is wrong with the MP3 format, and every digital music player sold today supports MP3 files — including the iPod. However, MP3 does not have a DRM option, and therefore record companies were very skeptical about releasing legal downloadable versions of their music in this format. Doing so would have only increased the level of MP3 piracy. For this reason, record companies did not jump onboard with online music sales until Fariplay and the Windows Media DRM became available.
It’s also worth noting that files saved as AACs or WMAs are typically smaller in size than an MP3 saved at the same bitrate — which means you fit more music on your device.
What are the arguments for and against choosing a WMA store, rather than iTunes (or another AAC store)?
The primary reason you’d choose a WMA store is that you will have more choice in portable music players and music playing software. The downside is that the best and most popular player, Apple’s iPod, will not be an option for you, as it does not currently support WMA. Additionaly, by choosing a WMA store, you are (in a sense) technologically wedding yourself to Microsoft — which, historically speaking, hasn’t been the best of ideas.
What are the arguments for and against choosing iTunes (or other AAC store) instead of a WMA store?
If you choose iTunes Music Store, it will likely be because you want to use the best jukebox software (Apple’s iTunes) and the best digital music player (Apple’s iPod). The downside will be less choice when it comes to jukebox software and music players, and also a “technological wedding” to Apple — but only for the moment (see the HP/Apple alliance and the new Real Jukebox for evidence that AAC is starting to branch out beyond Apple).
But isn’t AAC industry standard and WMA proprietary?
Yes, but this is very misleading. Apple fans will tell you that you should choose AAC because it’s an open standard. This is true. However, Fairplay — Apple’s DRM — is not part of that standard. Apple’s products (iTunes and iPod) play both the industry standard AAC (.m4a) files, as well as the Fairplay-enchanced AAC files (.m4p) sold on the iTunes Music Store. While it’s true that AAC is an open standard, the files sold at iTMS are only based on this standard — they do not fully comply with the standard, due to the addition of the Fariplay DRM.
What about the HP and Apple alliance?
HP recently licensed Apple’s iPod player and iTunes software in order to provide HP-branded versions to their customers. This is a huge boost for Apple and the AAC format. Many analysts predict that Apple will be making more deals like this one, and the result will be a day in which AAC and the Fairplay DRM are the de facto standard. Most consumer advocates like this idea, because AAC and Fariplay do not require license fees paid to Apple, and therefore do not marry you to one company, as WMA marries you to Microsoft.
So how do you decide?
Truthfully, I don’t know. The bottom line is that both Apple and Microsoft have their sights set on domination of this market. Until one or the other prevails or gives in, consumers will suffer. If Apple adds support for WMA to the iPod (as is rumored), there will finally be one player on the market that can play all major formats. Until then, you’re gambling. Gamble as you wish, but I’m betting that the current market leader will win in the end — and that is Apple.